SIPCA 2016

The Sydney International Piano Competition (SIPCA) is due to be held next year.

For many years, SIPCA relied on the financial support of Claire Dan, former wife of Peter Abeles described as a “founder” of the competition.

In 2000 there was a bit of a flurry of public criticism of the competition. This is preserved on the competition’s Wikipedia entry and also by virtue of the internet age.

The nub of it was encapsulated by a comment from Larry Sitsky:

“The title `Sydney International Piano Competition’ sounds grand and definitive. But behind the facade is a rather shabby private party in progress.”

Much of the criticism was really criticism of Warren Thomson, chairman of the jury from 1992.

Shabby or not, the competition certainly was a private party, and the person paying for the drinks was Claire Dan. Thomson remained the director because he had Dan’s confidence. “Warren is best because Warren gets things done,” said Dan.

The competition was run on a shoe-string. For a very modest salary, practically an honorarium, Thomson organised everything from the competition’s office in Dan’s Bellevue Hill mansion, which he attended on a daily basis. He arranged each competition, curated the follow-up tours for prizewinners and kept the affairs of the competition’s “Friends” bubbling along between competitions with musical events featuring his chosen proteges.

By the 2012 competition, Ms Dan was not well enough to attend. She died in October that year. Thomson himself was suffering a decline. He could barely preside on public occasions and had to entrust the pronunciation of difficult foreign names to others. He can only have managed by adherence to a by-then well-established timetable and procedures.

Following Dan’s death, the Bellevue Hill mansion was sold. At the beginning of 2014 it was announced that Thomson had retired. He moved to Melbourne and died in February this year.

At the beginning of this year the competition advertised for a new artistic director, seeking someone who would be responsible for everything that Thomson had done, right down to proof-reading the programs (with the possibility of some administrative assistance mentioned). An “International” figure was sought who could renew the competition.

At the beginning of April Australian expatriate pianist Piers Lane was announced as artistic director. Since then, Marcus Barker, who previously ran the Tasmanian “Ten Days on the Island” festival, has taken a job as General Manager and a “Marketing and Administration Coordinator” position has been advertised ($48,000 pro rata for four- rising to five-days-a-week before). This is the person who who will be doing the proofreading.

There must be some money to pay for all of this.

The revamped 2016 competition has now been announced.

The main changes that I have noticed are as follows:

1. Preliminary auditions are to be submitted as video recordings by Vimeo or Youtube.

Previously, Thomson travelled to various venues (North America, Europe, China, I think) and co-opted local ad hoc jurors for auditions which were at least theoretically open to the public. It is unlikely that Lane would have been available for such an extensive process.

I expect that young pianists of today are accustomed to this sort of requirement and there are obviously economies for the competition in proceeding this way. The costs to competitors of travelling to an audition venue as against preparing an audition video probably roughly cancel each other out.

Overall, I suppose this is a sign of the times, even if the next sign could only be an entire competition conducted online.

2. The syllabus for the solo-piano rounds has become less prescriptive.

The only requirement is that an Australian solo work be included but the specially commissioned Australian works which have previously been a feature of the competition have been dropped.

This may make it difficult to compare competitors although many players will fall back on usual competition stalwarts.

If the rules are looser potential competitors may be looking more carefully at the jury – to be announced in October.

3. The number of competitors has been reduced from 36 to 32 and there is one round fewer

This will save costs on fares and accommodation and duration of the competition. Previously stages I – IV were in duration 20, 20, 40, 50 mins plus chamber music, with respectively 36, 36, 20, 12 players. Now preliminary rounds are 20 and 30 minutes, after which the semi finals see a reduction from 32 to 12 players. The semi-final recital has been lengthened to 60-65 minutes. A player who gets to the semi finals will have played 110-15 minutes in 3 recitals as opposed to 130 in 4 before. We hear less from fewer pianists and more pianists will only play twice.

4. The solo and chamber music rounds have returned to the Verbrugghen Hall at the Conservatorium.

This marks the healing of the rift between the competition and the Con which occurred after Thomson left the Con and went to the Australian Institute of Music in the late 1990s. The competition also now has an office at the Con.

In the intervening years the competition has been held at the Seymour Centre. The Con is more glamorous and probably will work better backstage and for practice pianos. The Seymour Centre has actually proved to be quite audience friendly and provided you come by car much more accessible than the Con will be next year.

5. A revision of the “choice of piano” rules.

In previous years there was a kind of competition going on between piano manufacturers. There may have been more going on than met the public eye with the offering of practice pianos and other inducements to fancied competitors.

Now the rules say that four
pianos will be provided – Kawai, Yamaha, Steinway and Fazioli, and that “Competitors will perform on at least two and up to four different piano makes during the Preliminaries and Semi-finals of the Competitions, the order of which will be determined through a public draw in early June 2016.”

The rules state that this is designed to reproduce real-life conditions, where players cannot necessarily chose the instruments they play on – but how often in real life do you have to play a Fazioli? I can’t help thinking that this change has other more practical reasons, including just saving time in the first preliminary rounds.

6. A revision of the chamber music round.

In recent years the chamber music part of the semifinals involved making up a piano trio with one of two violin-cello pairs. Next year competitors will need to have prepared a violin sonata and a piano quintet. Which they get to play if they progress to this round looks as though it will depend on how the order of semi-finalists pans out.

The Goldner Quartet, who are collaborators with Lane, will make up the quintet; Tasmin Little will be the rent-a-violin.

It will be a treat for the audience to hear six piano quintet performances. It may prove a bit more difficult for competitors to find a whole quartet to practise with before the competition rather than just a violinist and cellist.

7. The list of concerti has been tweaked.

A Bach, a Haydn and Beethoven 1 and 2 have been added to the first concerto round which previously comprised Mozart concerti only. My bet is that there will be a Beethoven-ward drift.

The second, 19th-20th century round, which starts at Beethoven 4, is notable for what has not been included. Four prominent competition choices are OUT: Beethoven 3 & 5, Tchaikovsky 1 and Rachmaninov 3. That is a relief, especially the Tchaik and Rach.

There are some intriguing inclusions. This is the list:

Beethoven Concerto No 4 in G major Op 58

Hummel Concerto No 2 in A minor Op 85

Chopin Concerto No 2 in F minor Op 21

Schumann Concerto in A minor Op 54

Liszt Concerto No 2 in A major S.125

Grieg Concerto in A minor Op 16

Saint-Saëns Concerto No 2 in G minor Op 22

Tchaikovsky Concerto No 2 [!] in G major Op 44 (competitors might be wise to check which version the SSO has the parts for)

Brahms Concerto No 2 in B flat major Op 83

Scriabin Concerto in F sharp minor Op 20

Dohnányi Variations on a Nursery Tune Op 25

Rachmaninoff Concerto No 2 in C minor Op 18

Medtner Concerto No 2 in C minor Op 50

Prokofiev Concerto No 3 in C major Op 26

Gershwin Concerto in F

Ravel Concerto in G major

Bartok Concerto No 3 Sz. 119, BB 127

Barber Concerto Op 38

Williamson Concerto No 3 in E flat major (probably the most obscure of the lot: counts as Australian content)

Franck Variations Symphoniques M.46

Litolff Scherzo from Concerto Symphonique No 4.

The last two come together, ie, if you choose the Franck you also play the Litolff. They could be a canny choice. I hope somebody who has chosen these gets through to the finals.


There is (trigger alert: cliché coming) an elephant in the room: the devastating cutbacks in ABC Classic FM’s live broadcasts.

Over the years the ABC’s live broadcasts with commentary have done much to enhance the competition and I expect done a lot to garner audiences for the follow-up appearances for prize winners. They were a big part of the buzz.

In recent years, the ABC has extended the same coverage to the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition. This year it did not. At that time, the axe had just fallen and hard. The ABC probably thought it was doing well to mount the level of live and (more often) delayed broadcasts that it gave.

There is still time to regroup for SIPCA 2016. It would be pathetic if any invidious Sydney-Melbourne thing were raised to preclude the resumption of normal broadcasting.

Private party or not, if I were SIPCA, that is the big thing I would be working on right now.

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2 Responses to “SIPCA 2016”

  1. wanderer Says:

    An especially interesting read M.

  2. marcellous Says:

    Glad you liked it, W.

    On reflection, a lot of the changes are about shortening the competition and making it more convenient to run at the price of exposing competitors to a certain amount of arbitrary treatment under the guise of tough love.

    With generational change the competition is being more “professionally” run with all the growth in the wages bill that this entails. Some of the changes are probably with an eye to finding offsetting savings.

    I’ve calculated there will be 490 minutes less solo piano music in the new format of the competition than under the old (old competition: 2840 minutes, new 2350).

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